Extortion involves blackmailing victims with explicit imagery. This is common in America. Most of the Sextortion targeting teenagers on Snapchat and Instagram.
FBI is working to expose a notorious Instagram extortionist. He posed as Californian women and tricked 30 teens into sending nude pictures. Then, they were told that the photos would be shared with family and friends only if they pay a set amount. According to an unreported court filing, an 18 year old Ventura County boy gave $1,500 worth of Apple gift cards to the blackmailer. He then took his own life. SME.
They have been running the sextortion scheme since May 2013 and are not known to be who they are. They’ve been particularly aggressive in pursuing payment from victims, in one case threatening violence against a 19-year-old and his family. The scammer also hacked into at least two victims’ Instagram accounts, telling them to hand over passwords to stop their photos being shared, according to the FBI. Police received no response from the victims, who claimed that they had tried unsuccessfully to recover their accounts. They were both unavailable for verification by SME.
So far, law enforcement is unable to find the culprit of the fraud. Google Voice messages from more than two dozen victims were found in search results. The Justice Department and Ventura County police both declined to comment. An inquiry to the FBI for comment was unanswered.
With more people working from home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and spending more time online as a result, the FBI has documented what it describes as a “huge increase” in reports of sextortion. The agency’s Atlanta, Georgia office, for example, has received 50 such reports so far in 2022 — more than double the full-year total for 2021. In contrast, 44,155 were received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2021. This is in addition to 12,070 cases of sextortion and similar online schemes in 2018. Elsewhere, Cybertip.ca, Canada’s national tip line for child exploitation, told SMEIt had already opened 500 cases of sextortion claims in the past month.
“It’s a pandemic,” says John Pizzuro, a former 25-year-veteran investigator on child abuse crimes with the New Jersey State Police. “We can’t even keep up with the amount of cases… New Jersey’s increase has been 400% over the last four years, and that goes across the U.S. and across the world.”
Teenage boys are another notable target group in the rise and fall of sextortion. According to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, 92% of the child protection cases that it examined in July were involving young boys. According to the FBI, victims in most cases that it investigates are boys between the ages of 14 and 17.
It is an important shift in the targeting. NCMEC data six years ago revealed that 78% sexortion reports from 2013 to 2016 were female, while 15% of the cases involved male children.
While the financial cost of sextortion isn’t astronomical compared to other cybercrimes — standing at $13.6 million from 18,000 cases reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center in 2021, compared to $1 billion for romance scams — this form of online extortion is one that has repeatedly proven deadly.
Ventura County’s death was second in three months to be linked with sextortion. After being blackmailed by a scammer using an intimate picture he tricked into sharing, a San Jose 17-year old took his own death in February. CNN reported that the FBI still is trying to locate the criminal in that case. In February of this year, in Manitoba Canada, a 17year-old took his own life after being blackmailed for nude photos.
Attention is now turning to tech giants and what they’re doing to protect its young users. Canadian Centre for Child Protection claims that 42% of the sextortion cases they reviewed in July were committed via Instagram, while 38% and 38% occurred on Snapchat. As an example of what the Canadian organization called an Instagram failing, it identified at least 19 unique accounts used to sextort victims all using the same profile picture, “something we would expect their systems to intercept,” says Lianna McDonald, the nonprofit’s executive director. Meta didn’t respond to our request for additional information.
Instagram’s parent company Meta and Snapchat all declined comment on the rise in sextortion scams on their platforms. Meta pointed to its support of TopNCII.org, which helps people keep tabs on where their photos are shared, while Snapchat said it had various measures to stop teens chatting with people they didn’t know.
McDonald’s believes that regulations will be necessary to make tech companies do more. “Many network and platform design changes could be made to tackle these issues, but our experience has been that serious change won’t happen without regulatory intervention,” she says. “Why? Because changing some of the fundamental design issues that create favorable conditions for predation on many social media platforms would likely undermine aspects of their current business models.”
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (8255) if you think about suicide or a loved one.